How to Create a Compelling Character Arc

Your protagonist needs a powerful character arcBestselling novels and memoirs have believable and memorable characters who carry the reader through the story. Think of your favorite books. Consider the main characters. They probably followed a compelling character arc, which encouraged you to follow them loyally and happily on their adventures.

What is a character arc?

A character arc is the journey the character follows through the story. This path usually parallels a traditional three-act structure. As you develop the first act, your reader is introduced to your main character. The stage is set, a conflict is established, and the character’s goals are revealed. Then the character encounters an incident that incites her to begin her journey. This catapults her into the second act, where she follows her personal call to action. Then in the third act, she encounters the climactic confrontation and has her triumphant victory.

There are four main kinds of character arcs used in literature:

  • Transformational
  • Positive
  • Flat
  • Negative

Transformational and Positive arcs are somewhat similar. At the start of the story the character is in an unfavorable situation, but, by the end of the story he winds up in a far better position. Flat character arcs have no change. The character stays the same throughout the story. This type of arc is usually reserved for superhero-type protagonists, who have no need to change. They start out good and end up good. It’s worth noting that often minor characters don’t change much. In a negative arc the character ends up in a worse position than when he started.

As a ghostwriter, I specialize in transformational or positive character arcs because I feel strongly that these make for a better reading experience. Although stories like Breaking Bad, where the main character becomes a meth dealer to solve his problems, can be very popular with viewers, they aren’t my cup of tea. I prefer to stick with uplifting plot lines.

Positive character arcs

transformation of a character in a book you writeIf your story has a happy ending, this is probably the character arc you’ll want to choose. A popular example of this would be Harry Potter. He starts his journey as an abused boy, confused by his special abilities. Along the way he blossoms into a confident hero of both the magical and muggle worlds. It’s worth noting that many of the other major characters go through their own arcs. For instance, by the end of the series, Hermione and Ron are quite different, because their personal stories are very different.

If you’re writing a memoir, you are the protagonist of your piece, and your experiences will determine your character arc. Most likely it will be a positive one, otherwise why would you write your book?

Over the last twenty years I’ve worked on seventeen memoirs. Each one told the story of my client’s fierce battle to overcome nearly impossible odds. The reason these books were successful was that the reader believed the characters’ journeys and could identify with the authors on some level.

One client shared his story of growing up in an impoverished community which lacked running water and electricity. He had a happy childhood, but there were many challenges and a lot of conflict. As he grew up, he overcame many obstacles. By the end of the book, he found his way to America and became a successful entrepreneur. The story is powerful, riveting, and relatable to many. Not surprisingly, this book is currently being made into a movie.

A few tips for a successful character arc

Tip #1: Conflict is key

You need conflict in your bestselling book!Any story worth reading will start off with a bang (ie: it will throw the protagonist into a heap of trouble early on). Honestly, I always do my best to drop my readers into the deep end of the pool so that they have to tread water to keep up.

Now, in order to produce this kind of an effect on your reader, you need to create conflict throughout your book. Your main character needs to struggle and fight his way through whatever circumstance life throws at him. Sometimes this conflict can be quiet; perhaps it comes in the form of a disagreement. Or it can be splashy, like the beginning of a war or an invasion. A story without conflict will become a book that collects dust in a forgotten thrift store.

Tip #2: Develop strong characters

Your goal is to create a main character your reader will want to follow. This can be difficult if she isn’t well developed. You must introduce your main character to the reader early on and make her intriguing and captivating. Give her strong characteristics. Be clear and certain in your presentation of her attributes and personality.

I recommend that before you begin writing your first draft, you create bios for each of your major characters. Flesh out their back stories, work out their motivations, and make sure their behaviors are believable. Really understand who they are. Know them just as well as you know your real-life best friends. Once you have realistic three-dimensional characters, you can create compelling arcs for them to follow.

Tip #3: Show, don’t tell

Show, don’t tell is a popular phrase among writers. It means that you need to show elements of your story through action rather than through narrative. Keep this in mind as you create your lead character’s transformational arc.

For instance, how boring would it be if your protagonist announced out of the blue that he planned to turn over a new leaf and stop selling drugs. Where is the conflict and drama? Your character needs a reason to make a change. And you must show that to the reader.

Tip #4: Determine the correct character arc for your story

Select the right character arc for your bookBy choice I have never written a book with a negative or flat character arc. But that doesn’t mean that these are not viable options. You will determine the correct path for your character based on your story and the message you wish to impart.

For instance, if you’re writing a high-action adventure story along the lines of Indiana Jones, it might not work to have your main character undergo too many changes. A flat arc could work. In addition, it’s possible to tell a powerful story with a positive message through a negative arc illustration. The Godfather comes to mind as a good example. Michael Corleone starts out as a good guy, but by the time the door closes at the end of the first movie, you can see that he’s undergone a transformation for the worse.

Not every character arc needs to see the protagonist through from complete failure to complete success or have a complete one hundred-eighty degree shift in viewpoint. Not every protagonist needs to be an Ebenezer Scrooge who turns from a miserly grump into a philanthropic benefactor by the end. No, the change might be a bit more subtle.

 

As you work on outlining your book and creating the protagonist for your novel, consider the arc he or she will follow. Choose one that works for the story and the message you wish to write. Create an engaging character and a compelling arc, keeping in mind that you want your readers to relate to and understand them. Using these tips, you will find your readers rooting for your main characters and happily and loyally following them on their adventures.

Character Development: How to Create Strong Characters

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Dear Friendly Ghostwriter, I have written a story about a teen who has doubts about his faith. The story takes place in a different realm. I have a complete story in about 30,000 words, but it lacks deep character development. That is my struggle. I want help developing feelings of the characters on paper. Looking forward to your response. Peace, Dan

Dear Dan,

Congratulations on the completion of your first story. That’s a wonderful accomplishment! I understand your struggles with character development; it’s tricky. As you’ve surmised, it is a quintessential part of any book, whether it’s a novel or a memoir. While description and action are key to locating a story and moving it along, what keeps readers invested are the fascinating characters that draw them in. I’d like to explore a few ways you might create characters that are well-rounded, full of life, and able to keep the reader engaged in your story.

Writing with reality

Research is a crucial component of the process, especially if you are unfamiliar with the character’s skill or condition. Let’s imagine that your main character is a fighter pilot, but that you’ve never been in a cockpit. Still, you need to write your scenes so that a seasoned pilot might identify with the character, thinking to themselves, “Yeah, that’s happened to me.”

Photo by Dominik Kollau on Unsplash

No, you don’t have the enroll in flight school to write about an ace pilot, but you do need to roll up your sleeves and learn. Start by scouring the internet for stories about a jet jockey taking to the skies. Read a few biographies or memoirs and try to pick up a pilot’s lingo and actions, as well as his state of mind. Of course, if it’s at all possible, speak directly to a person who is passionate about flying, someone with a lot of experience. Nothing beats that one-on-one interview.

As a general rule of thumb, it helps to watch people when working to improve character development. Just go to a public place and observe how different people interact. Look for mannerisms, notice the speech patterns, etc. This will help you create character bios, which we’ll discuss later in this article. The first step is to be able to identify various traits of people in front of you.

People don’t exist in a void

Unless your book centers around one person stuck on a deserted island talking to a volleyball all day, you’ll need to create many characters for your book. Don’t just focus on the main character, the protagonist. Of course, many stories also have a “bad guy” (an antagonist), somebody bent on thwarting your hero as he attempts to achieve his goal. You’ll need to understand this person just as thoroughly as your main guy. However, don’t forget the other side characters. They contribute to the motion of the story, too, and are known as secondary characters.

Writers can make the mistake of ignoring the minor players, thinking they aren’t important enough to be fully realized. Even if the character is the barista who serves your pilot a steaming hot cappuccino with honey each morning, she deserves a little character development. Think of Gunter on the popular sitcom Friends. He had dimension and we all loved him, although he rarely said a word.

Every character needs to pop from the page; they need description, personality, and realistic dialogue. It could come from the way the barista talks. Or perhaps the way she whistles to herself as she works, a tune the protagonist can’t get out of his head for the rest of the day. When you really spend the time to create these secondary characters and create their relationship to the others in your book, they come alive and often help flesh out the protagonist as well as the story.

Create character bios

As you work to form your characters, consider creating a little bio for them. Definitely avoid stereotypes, such as the absent-minded professor or the ditzy teenager. People rarely fall into these clichés. Readers appreciate seeing their lives reflected in your book, so include lots of examples of the rich diversity of humankind in your story.

When I build a character bio, I start with the physical description: Height, weight, hair color, etc. These might never be directly discussed, but I need to know what they are. For instance, if Jeremy is 5’ 2” and Alice is nearly six foot, Jeremy will always be craning his neck up to just look at his beloved.

Now that you have these mundane details down, it’s time to focus on the aspects that make up your character’s in-depth portrait. Include his history, typical emotional state, spiritual belief, nervous tick, and anything else that makes him, him.

Quick and Easy Bio Sheet

I have a form that I use when I’m starting a new project. Here are a few elements you might consider including for each character:

  1. Full name and nicknames
  2. Birth date (this helps you know how old each character is in each scene you write)
  3. The address of their current residence, as well as all the homes they ever lived in
  4. Any identifying marks or physical conditions, etc.
  5. Mannerisms
  6. Hobbies or interests
  7. Educational background
  8. Jobs they’ve held
  9. Milestone events and dates (such as graduations, marriages, birth of children, etc.)
  10. The names of their significant other and children, along with their birthdates

Dan, this is just a starting point, but I hope I’ve sparked some ideas to help you with character development. Creating the people of your book is truly fun! The idea is to get to know your characters on a personal level. The more real they are to you, the more identifiable they will be to your reader, and the richer your story will be.

You might also be interested in these articles:

How to Edit Your Own Book

Write and Publish Your Book in 2020

Now Is the Right Time to Write Your Book

How to Create Compelling Character Arcs